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The Feast: Rick Bayless' Taco Party

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with recipes for tacos and salsa, plus 15 recommended Spanish value wines
Photo by: Courtesy of Frontera Grill
Chef Rick Bayless celebrates the complexity of authentic Mexican flavors in these flavorful dishes.

Hilary Sims
Posted: April 24, 2017

Cooking for a crowd? WineSpectator.com's newest online feature, "The Feast," turns to ace chefs—who better to advise on feeding the whole crew?—for recipes, prep advice and, of course, wine pairings. Plus, we'll give you 15 wines priced at $20 or less recommended by our editors. Get ready: It's time to feast!

Close your eyes and picture Cinco de Mayo. What do you see? If the answer is XXL sombreros, 2-for-1 margaritas and party platters of gummy, room-temperature cheese quesadillas, you’re not alone. But the rich heritage of Mexico deserves better.

To uncork some inspiration, we turned to chef Rick Bayless. The restaurateur, cookbook author and cooking-show host, who was called upon to prepare the 2010 White House state dinner for Mexico’s then-president, Felipe Calderón, is the United States’ most visible ambassador for the bounty and nuance of Mexican cuisine.

We asked him to map out a wine-fueled Cinco de Mayo feast that hits the pleasure centers, celebrates real Mexico and doesn’t require days’ worth of prep. He responded with a vibrant menu featuring two types of tacos—Cochinita Pibil for roast pork lovers, and vegetarian Swiss Chard—along with Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa. Jill Gubesch, wine director for Bayless’ Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winners Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, offers wine-pairing advice, and we've provided a list of 15 recommended red and white Spanish value wines.

So how did a white guy from Oklahoma become the standard-bearer for Mexican cuisine in the United States? Bayless was enchanted with Mexico as a teen and later immersed himself in Spanish and Latin American studies as an undergraduate before doing doctoral research in anthropological linguistics. He and his wife, Deann, lived in Mexico for six years.

“In the U.S., we’re used to Mexican-American food, which is kind of simple,” Bayless says. “When I was 14, I went to Mexico, and for the first time, I tasted things like molé, and a roasted tomatillo salsa, and the complexity that you get when you stop and get a taco on the street that’s made with goat meat that’s been slow-cooked with red chile. There’s so much complexity to this food, and I fell in love with that.”

One of the founding principles of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Bayless' newest place, Leña Brava, was that wine and Mexican food belong together. “I really don’t like the relegating of Mexican food to lesser beverages,” Bayless explains. “When you get into real Mexican food, the flavors are super-complex, and the amount of energy you invest in making the food is equal to any other cuisine in the world.”

Key to this taco-fest is that much of the meal can be made ahead. “You don’t have to extract yourself from the party for a long time while you’re getting everything set up,” Bayless notes. “I think that’s really important.” The two salsas can be made a few days in advance and stashed in the fridge; the pork can start braising the morning of your party; and even the Swiss chard tacos can be prepped and partially cooked before guests arrive.

“The tortillas are probably the hardest part of all of this,” cautions Bayless, who prefers the Mexican authenticity of corn tortillas to their flour-based counterparts. To keep them from falling apart, be sure to follow his steps for gentle heating, and start serving them immediately. You may also want to buttress each taco with a double layer of tortilla.

Another pro tip: In his restaurants, Bayless keeps the housemade corn tortillas piping hot for hours using inexpensive Styrofoam holders that he says are available at just about any Mexican grocery. (You can also wrap the hot tortillas in a kitchen towel and nestle them inside a heated, oven-safe lidded container.)

To get your guests into the party spirit, Gubesch suggests a light-and-easy Albariño, the Bodegas del Marqués de Vargas Albariño Rias Baixas Pazo de San Mauro 2015. With its delicate floral aromatics, she likes the way it counterbalances Bayless’ salsa, which has subtle heat and a zing of lime acidity.

Wrapping pork shoulder in sweet, herbaceous banana leaves and braising it in the nutty native Yucatecan spice achiote (also known as annatto) begets what’s known as cochinita pibil. “It is the most emblematic dish of the Yucatán,” Bayless says. “The taco of cochinita pibil is sort of legendary.” He adds, “It’s always served with pickled red onions and a very explosive habanero salsa,” which delivers such a sting of heat that just a few drops will do.

The earlier you start the pickling process for your red onions, the juicier and tangier they’ll be, and the habanero salsa can be put together anytime you have 20 minutes and some counter space. Banana leaves are not as hard to come by as you might think—look for Mexican or Middle Eastern specialty markets—and they give the earthy, sweet flavor profile of the taco an inimitable woodsy depth.

Gubesch pairs the cochinita pibil with a classic Rioja with some bottle age, the La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva 2007. “The earthy flavor of the Tempranillo works well with the nutty flavor of achiote,” she says, “and the sweet spices in the marinade pick up on the sweet spice notes the American oak lends to the wine.”

Bayless’ Swiss chard taco recipe is a traditional offering in the countryside of central Mexico. “It is considered peasant cuisine,” he explains. If peasant food seems like an odd choice for a celebration, he points out that it’s all in your perspective. “In the States, we don’t carry that sociological baggage, so we can look at it the way I look at it—as just one of the great things of all time.”

Gubesch pairs the sweet-and-salty chard tacos with the Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône-Villages Vinsobres Les Cornuds 2015. “The ripe, rich fruit in the wine pops the sweetness of the caramelized onion while matching the deep herbaceous notes of the greens,” she says.

Cinco de Mayo may never be the same.

Hilary Sims

Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa

For the Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa:

  • 1 to 2 fresh jalapeno chiles
  • 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice, preferably fire-roasted
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, loosely packed
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

To make the Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa:

1. In a small, ungreased skillet over medium heat, roast the chiles and garlic, turning regularly, until they are soft and blotchy-brown, about 10 minutes for the chiles and 15 minutes for the garlic. Cool until handleable, then pull the stem(s) off the chile(s) and roughly chop. Peel the skin off the garlic. Scoop into a food processor and pulse until quite finely chopped.

2. Add the tomatoes with their juice. Cover and pulse to a coarse puree. Scrape into a serving dish.

3. Stir in the cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season with salt, usually about a half-teaspoon. (Salsa can be made, through Step 2, several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. Follow Step 3 the day of your party.) Serve with tortilla chips. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Hilary Sims

Cochinita Pibil Tacos

For the Cochinita Pibil Tacos:

  • 2 ounces prepared achiote seasoning (3 tablespoons plus 1.5 teaspoons)
  • 3/4 cup lime juice (divided use)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 pound of banana leaves, defrosted if frozen (optional)
  • 3-pound bone-in pork shoulder roast
  • 1 large white onion, peeled and sliced about ¼-inch thick
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup roasted habanero salsa (recipe follows) or bottled habanero hot sauce
  • 18 soft corn tortillas, heated (instructions follow)

Note: Achiote and banana leaves are available at Mexican, Middle Eastern and specialty markets, and online.

To make the Cochinita Pibil Tacos:

1. Place the achiote seasoning in a small bowl, pour in 1/2 cup of the lime juice and 2 teaspoons salt, then use the back of a spoon to work the two together into a smooth, thickish marinade, whisking if necessary for a smooth texture.

2. If you have banana leaves, cut two 2-foot sections and use them to line a slow cooker—lay one down the length, the other across the width. Lay in the meat and pour the marinade over and around the roast. Scatter the white onion over the meat.

3. Pour 1/2 cup water around the meat, fold up the banana leaves to roughly cover everything and then turn on the slow cooker. Slow-cook on high for 6 hours until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. (The dish can hold on a slow-cooker’s “keep warm” function for 4 more hours or so.)

4. While the meat is cooking, combine the red onion with the remaining 1/4 cup of the lime juice in a small bowl. Sprinkle with about 1/4 teaspoon salt, toss and set aside to marinate, stirring from time to time.

5. Use tongs to transfer the meat and onions to dinner plates. Spoon off any rendered fat that’s floating over the juices. If there is a lot of brothy sauce—two cups or more—tip or ladle it into a saucepan and boil it down to about one cup. Taste the sauce and season with salt if you think it needs it, then spoon it over the meat. Top with the lime-marinated red onions and serve with roasted habanero salsa or bottled habanero hot sauce—and plenty of hot tortillas for making tacos. Makes about 18 tacos to serve 6.

Tip: No slow cooker? In a large (6- to 8-quart, at least 12-inch diameter) heavy pot (preferably a Dutch oven), assemble the dish as described—including dribbling the water around the meat. Set the lid in place and braise in a 300-degree oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the pork is thoroughly tender. Complete the dish as described. If there isn’t much juice in the bottom of the pan, remove the meat and add about a cup of water. Bring to a boil, scraping up any sticky bits, season with salt, then pour over the meat.

For the Roasted Habanero Salsa:

  • 8 medium (about 3 ounces total) fresh habanero chiles
  • 2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon salt

To make the Roasted Habanero Salsa:

In an ungreased skillet over medium heat, roast the chiles and garlic, turning regularly, until they’re soft and darkened in spots, 5 to 10 minutes for the chiles, 15 minutes for the garlic. When cool, slip the skins off the garlic. In a blender or small food processor, add the garlic and roasted chiles, plus the lime juice and enough water to give it a spoonable consistency, usually 2 to 4 tablespoons. Blend until smooth. Taste (gingerly) and season with salt, usually about 1/2 teaspoon. (Salsa can be made several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.) Makes about 1 cup.

Courtesy of Frontera Grill

Swiss Chard Tacos with Caramelized Onion, Fresh Cheese and Red Chile

For the Swiss Chard Tacos:

  • 2 12-ounce bunches cleaned Swiss chard (or collard, mustard or beet greens), thick lower stems cut off, or 20 ounces cleaned spinach, lamb’s quarters or amaranth greens (about 12 cups, loosely packed)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, olive oil, fresh rendered lard or bacon drippings
  • 2 large white or red onion, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped or crushed through a garlic press
  • About 2 teaspoons chile flakes
  • 1 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
  • 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
  • Two 15-ounce cans black beans, drained (optional)
  • 12 soft corn tortillas, heated (instructions follow)
  • About 3/4 cup prepared salsa
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled Mexican queso fresco or other fresh cheese such as feta or goat cheese for serving

To make the Swiss Chard Tacos:

1. Cut the chard crosswise in 1/2-inch slices (small spinach, lamb’s quarters and amaranth leaves can be left whole). In a very large (12-inch) skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until browned but still crunchy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chile flakes, stir for a few seconds until aromatic, then add the broth or water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the greens and the beans, if using. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pan (if you don’t have a lid, a cookie sheet works well) and cook until the greens are almost tender, anywhere from 2 minutes for tender spinach and amaranth greens to 7 or 8 minutes for thick collard greens—Swiss chard needs about 5 minutes.

2. Uncover the pan, raise the temperature to medium-high and cook, stirring continually, until the mixture is nearly dry. Taste and season with additional salt if you think necessary. (Filling can be partially made up to 2 hours ahead: After adding the garlic and chile flakes to the pan, remove from heat. Just before serving, continue to follow the recipe as written.)

3. Serve with warm tortillas, salsa and crumbled cheese. Makes about 12 tacos to serve 4.

Reheating Corn Tortillas

To reheat the corn tortillas:

In a microwave: Dribble 3 tablespoons of water over a clean kitchen towel, then wrap your cold tortillas in it (you can also use damp paper towels). Slide the package into a microwaveable plastic bag and fold the top over, but don't seal it. Microwave at 50 percent power for 4 minutes to create a steamy environment around the tortillas. Let stand for 2 to 3 minutes before serving.

In a vegetable steamer: Set up a vegetable steamer (one without that little post sticking up). Pour about 1/2 inch of water into the bottom. Wrap the cold tortillas—no more than 12 at a time—in a clean kitchen towel. Lay the package in the steamer, set the lid in place and set the pot over high heat. When steam comes puffing out, set the timer for 1 minute. Then turn off the heat and let the tortillas sit in their steamy world for 10 minutes.

15 Recommended Spanish Value Wines

LOSADA VINOS DE FINCA Bierzo Losada 2014 Score: 91 | $20
Generous yet focused, this red delivers black cherry, plum, blood orange, chocolate and toasty flavors, with savory notes of licorice and fennel. Light tannins and citrusy acidity support the fleshy texture. Expressive. Mencía. Drink now through 2021. 8,000 cases made.—T.M.

BODEGAS ONTAÑON Viura Rioja Vetiver 2014 Score: 91 | $15
This bold white marries expressive flavors to a muscular texture. Pear and quince notes mingle with brioche, chamomile and dried pineapple details, with juicy acidity and light tannins lending support. Lively now, this should harmonize with time. Drink now through 2024. 2,000 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS PALACIOS REMONDO Rioja La Montesa Crianza 2013 Score: 91 | $20
A thick texture carries plum tart, orange peel, toasted vanilla and anise flavors in this ripe version, balanced by juicy acidity. The spicy, berry-scented finish is long and pure. Drink now through 2023. 10,800 cases imported.—T.M.

RAFAEL CAMBRA Garnacha Valencia Soplo 2012 Score: 90 | $15
Juicy acidity keeps this fleshy red lively, showcasing the fresh fruit flavors of cherry, plum and blood orange, with herbal and chocolate notes. Focused and fresh, in the modern style. Drink now through 2020. 2,500 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS LA CANA Albariño Rias Baixas La Caña 2015 Score: 90 | $18
Bright acidity focuses the generous texture in this bold white, with peach, apple and blanched almond flavors that show accents of mineral, toast and fresh herbs. Clean and focused, with the stuffing to age. Drink now through 2020. 4,300 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS CASA ROJO Albariño Rias Baixas La Marimorena 2015 Score: 90 | $16
This rich white delivers melon, pear, salted almond and smoky flavors, with vibrant grapefruit acidity imparting focus. Shows unusual power and depth, backed by a minerally spine. Drink now through 2020. 2,000 cases imported.—T.M.

GODELIA Mencía Bierzo 2012 Score: 90 | $19
Cocoa and cola notes frame tart cherry and leafy flavors in this focused red. Smoky and mineral notes add interest. Light tannins and firm acidity keep this focused. Harmonious. Drink now through 2020. 12,500 cases made.—T.M.

BODEGAS NAIA Rueda 2015 Score: 90 | $17
Toasty and smoky notes frame pear, melon and blanched almond flavors in this white, with fresh acidity keeping the round texture focused. Shows good depth and structure. Verdejo. Drink now through 2018. 6,000 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS OLARRA Rioja Cerro Añon Reserva 2012 Score: 90 | $20
This savory red is energetic and expressive, with licorice, floral and smoky notes framing a core of cherry and mineral flavors. Light tannins and brisk acidity support the lean, lively structure. Drink now through 2022. 8,000 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGA NEKEAS Garnacha Navarra El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Old Vines 2014 Score: 89 | $15
This round red shows good density, with focused flavors of black cherry, fennel, cinnamon and cola, supported by light tannins and balsamic acidity. Drink now through 2024. 2,000 cases imported.—T.M.

RONADELLES Priorat Vins i Llegendes 2011 Score: 89 | $19
Cherry, kirsch and licorice flavors are expressive in this racy red, accented by tobacco and dark chocolate notes. Light, firm tannins and balsamic acidity lend this a firm but lean structure. Drink now through 2019. 1,000 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS VALLOBERA Rioja Crianza 2014 Score: 89 | $16
Offers a round, supple texture, silky and enticing. Carries gentle, harmonious flavors of plum, tobacco, orange peel and toast. Light, well-integrated tannins and gentle acidity keep this red focused and lively. Drink now through 2020. 6,000 cases imported.—T.M.

CUNE Rioja Crianza 2014 Score: 88 | $13
This firm red shows black cherry, plum, toast and tar notes, with light but assertive tannins that give way to a fresh and juicy finish. Drink now through 2022. 10,000 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGA VIRGEN DE LA SIERRA Garnacha Calatayud Albada Viñas Viejas 2014 Score: 88 | $10
Toast and licorice notes frame black cherry and plum flavors in this round, fresh red. Light tannins and lively acidity give this an accessible structure. Stays balanced through the focused finish. Drink now through 2020. 500 cases imported.—T.M.

BODEGAS CASTILLO DE MONJARDIN Garnacha Navarra La Cantera Old Vines 2015 Score: 87 | $9
Black cherry, currant, blood orange and kumquat flavors are bright and juicy, with accents of vanilla and spice. Gentle tannins and tangerine acidity lend freshness. Drink now through 2018. 1,200 cases imported.—T.M.

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